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The eThekwini Metro organised a very successful two-day workshop last week on social cohesion. Indeed, this had been arranged even prior to President Jacob Zuma’s call for a national summit. That we lack social cohesion is a regrettable fact, a consequence of enforced societal division by apartheid policies and such legislation as the Group Areas Act.
The growth of a new middle class has made a positive difference to the extent that suburbia now reflects some integration, even though there remains, in most areas, a pre-eminence of one or other group. The vast majority of people continue to be marginalised by distance from their workplace and physical and economic environments that perpetuate their disadvantages.
Even in the now-expanded and multi-cultural middle class, there is little social cohesion. Groups stick together in their activities and associations, as, I suppose, human beings are wont to do. While workplaces offer obvious sites for the development of social cohesion, this is not frequently exploited.
Here, too, social friendships and after-hours contacts occur mostly within demographic groups and not across them. There is some change, of course, but it would be wrong to rate it as satisfactory.
Johannesburg, by comparison, is far more cosmopolitan and multi-cultural groups socialising together, at upmarket centres for example, are much more common than they are here.
I learnt from my experience as headmaster of a non-racial school that laissez-faire is not the best way to deal with this issue. At the time, I thought it was and did very little intervention to promote better mutual understanding.
I thought it would evolve on its own.
I was a tactful referee in disputes, perhaps, and kept the peace, but this was not enough to bring the young people together in such a way that innate prejudices and other issues of dispute would dissipate through mutual and growing awareness of what made the other person tick. Scholars in mixed schools are much further down the track now and I suspect that in many of the former model C and private schools, social cohesion is well achieved.
But these schools, mostly, do not reflect the demographic distribution which characterises our country, and, as occurs in the workplace where corporate culture is sacrosanct, all scholars, including those that are not white, are expected to observe the western public school traditions on which quality education is thought to be dependent.
Social disconnectedness has become somewhat more related to class differences, without losing the essential barriers of race.
The workshop highlighted many opportunities which could be used to promote social cohesion. I know of a consultant who implemented his successful programme in some small towns, but a facilitator is not essential to the process. If it is all about bringing people together for a common purpose where, in time, they will engage with one another and learn about their commonalities rather than their differences, this is not so difficult to do.
The Soccer World Cup did this in a most emphatic way, but was not enough to induce momentum. The city wants to be known for its events, and these offer exactly the opportunity that is required, provided that they are accessible and attractive.
The beachfront, used for recreational purpose by families, offers the possibility of creating a fun zone in which people can mix socially, probably after dark. It is often in this kind of environment that people connect most easily. A decent public transport system would bring people from different backgrounds together, perhaps on a daily basis.
At the moment, the People Movers are empty and the minibus taxis overflowing. The Point, largely stagnant at the moment, and the CBD needs to be exploited as precincts which draw people from all quarters of the city.
They would come – even from north of the river – if they are clean, safe and attractive and there are events and activities that make them places to be. Then there is sport – perhaps the most significant agent of cohesion. But what sport? And, where? This is a topic on its own and requires a good deal of discussion to enable us to find the ways of harnessing the cohesive power of sport.